Hotline (A Murmur Inc. novel)
This title is part of the Murmur Inc. universe.
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Zack never intended to become a phone sex operator, but with half a college degree and a smart mouth, his options were limited. It helps that he has a knack for thinking on his feet and a willingness to roll with whatever his clients throw at him. Sure, he gets his fair share of creeps and unconventional requests, but it pays the bills, and he’s in no danger of breaking his one rule: never fall for a client.
Until a man named “John” starts calling, and Zack finds himself interested in more than a paycheck. It’s not just that John has money, or that his rumbling baritone drives Zack wild. He’s everything Zack isn’t: educated, poised, and in total control of his life.
A twist of fate brings them face-to-face, and now that they’ve seen each other—and spent an unforgettable night together—they can’t go back to the way things were. A sex worker and a trust fund brat . . . It’s like Romeo and Juliet, but with less stabbing and slightly fewer dick jokes. Hopefully they can pull off a more successful ending.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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“Oh, yes,” Zack moaned, “keep touching yourself just like that. You make me so hot.”
He heard an answering grunt, but it seemed his client was too far gone to form actual words. He glanced at the clock at the corner of his desk. Eleven minutes and counting. He’d had this one on the phone for longer than most, but he needed to keep him there if he wanted to make any real money. He could hear the wet sound of lube and a hand moving over flesh. Zack’s cock twitched enviously, but he ignored it. He was working, after all.
“I love the noises you make,” he purred. “You sound so sexy and desperate. What would you do to me if I were there right now? Would you fuck me until I couldn’t stand?”
His client whimpered, and Zack bit back a curse. Shit. He’d been in the biz long enough to recognize that sound. His client was about to come, and there was little Zack could do to stop him. He briefly flirted with the idea of saying something to kill the mood. So, are you and your parents close? Were you bullied in high school? I’ve had this weird rash on my thigh for like a month now . . .
Tempting as it was, he discarded the idea. Not only would the client never call him again, but he’d probably hang up on him too. He mentally sighed and started drawing random symbols on the surface of his desk with an index finger. After a few more well-timed moans and an “Oh, fuck yes, baby,” he heard a startled groan, followed by heavy breathing. A second later, the line went dead.
“Another one comes and goes.” Zack huffed as he placed the phone back in its cradle. Part of him resented the fact that his clients seldom bothered to say good-bye. He understood why, though. If those extra five seconds caused the minute to roll over, they’d have to pay another $1.99. Good-byes just weren’t economical.
Zack turned to the ancient computer that took up the left half of his desk and squinted at the dim screen. The tracking system logged his calls incorrectly more often than not, and their commission rate wasn’t the best. Even working full-time, he couldn’t be blasé about losing a single minute. Everything seemed to be correct, however, so he typed his initials in the appropriate box and hit Enter.
Zack checked his clock again. It was a quarter past two in the morning, which meant he could go home soon. Not so soon that he couldn’t justify taking a quick break, however. None of his phone lines were blinking, and Colette hadn’t dropped off a new Murmur. No one would notice if he slipped away for a few minutes.
Zack stood up and stretched his arms above his head, rising onto the toes of his red Converse sneakers. His joints popped pleasantly, and the hem of his shirt rode up over his flat stomach. One of the major selling points of becoming a phone sex operator was the dress code, or lack thereof. Since his clients couldn’t see him, it didn’t matter if he showed up in street clothes. His boss certainly didn’t care, so long as he made money. It was Casual Friday all week long.
Zack poked his head out of his cubicle and surveyed the room. More cubicles and desks dotted the open space, but the similarities to a normal office ended there. Murmur Inc. was located in a disused recording studio. An assortment of old mixing consoles, audio workstations, and equalizers were piled haphazardly in the back. At night, the blue walls and olive carpet looked gray beneath the harsh fluorescent lighting. Zack preferred to work the afternoon-to-evening shift. When sunset rolled around, warm light flooded through the windows on the west side of the building, casting the office in gold and shadow. It created the perfect atmosphere for seduction.
Zack stepped out of his cubicle and glanced toward a desk that was two up and one over from his. To his immense pleasure, it was occupied. He strolled up to a woman with multiple facial piercings and shockingly purple hair that had been shaved on one side. She was perched on the edge of a desk identical to Zack’s, and seemed utterly absorbed in the task of filing her neon-green nails.
Zack waited for her to acknowledge him, but she just kept filing. Zack fought a smile and stepped closer. And closer. And closer, until their knees were nearly touching. The corner of her mouth twitched up, and Zack knew he’d won.
“So, Alexa—” he began, but she cut him off.
“Don’t even think about it, Zack.” Her deep voice was at odds with her petite frame. “I’ve given you enough already.”
Zack pressed his palms together in mock supplication. “Please? Pretty please? You know I left my pack at home. Plus, if you come with me, I’ll tell you about this freaky caller I had.”
“We all get freaky callers,” Alexa protested, but she tossed her nail file into the pencil holder on her desk and stood up. “Fine. I’ll do it, but only because you look especially hot today.”
Zack glanced down at himself. He was wearing his “working on my car” clothes: a black, fitted shirt and old jeans that sported several oil stains. He had to admit, he looked rugged. “Darling, I’ll wear this every day if it’ll make you happy.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Alexa opened the top drawer of her filing cabinet and extracted a pack of cigarettes. Zack was far from a regular smoker, but he indulged more often than he liked to admit. It was a combination of peer pressure—his coworkers all smoked—and the fact that he worked in the sex industry. Postcoital cigarettes were a fact of life at Murmur Inc.
Alexa gestured for him to follow and then weaved her way toward the exit. Zack fell into step behind her, keeping his eyes fixed on the back of her black hoodie. It was all he could do to block out the murmuring voices coming from the other cubicles. He was no prude—he couldn’t be in his line of work—but he had little desire to eavesdrop. The company Christmas party was already awkward enough.
Alexa reached the exit and shoved the metal doors open, revealing a darkened flight of stairs. Zack followed her down until they reached another door and then finally hit outside air. It was a clear, crisp autumn night, but Zack couldn’t see a single star. He’d been living in Los Angeles for over two decades, and he could only remember a handful of times that he’d really seen them. The city was a sprawling skeleton of concrete and metal. And, in his opinion, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Living here meant inhaling exhaust fumes and ordering salads with dressing on the side in the same breath.
Alexa broke him from his thoughts by handing him a cigarette.
Zack took it eagerly. “Thank God. I was dying of boredom in there.”
“What a coincidence,” Alexa said in an amused tone. “I was dying for a nonsmoker to steal one of my cigarettes.”
Zack rolled his eyes. “I smoke plenty.” He held up the cigarette as proof.
“Yeah, when you’d rather wreck your lungs than be inside. That really says something about how much you love your job.”
Alexa pulled a bubblegum-pink lighter from the pocket of her hoodie and lit up. Then she tossed it to Zack. He lit his own cigarette and handed the lighter back before taking a puff. The nicotine hit his bloodstream in a rush and made him feel dizzy. He could never quite decide if he liked the sensation or not. It was like being suddenly drunk for no reason.
Alexa noticed his unsteadiness. “That proves it. Real smokers don’t still get dizzy from it. Not that I’m encouraging you.”
“All judgment and lung cancer aside, I can’t afford a regular habit.”
“Fair enough. So—” she exhaled a plume of smoke “—tell me about this alleged ‘freaky caller’ of yours.”
“Oh man, you’re never gonna believe this one,” Zack began, brushing his dark hair out of his eyes. “He wanted me to—”
The door to the building swung open, and a man Zack vaguely recognized stepped outside.
“Hey, Pete,” Alexa greeted him, folding her arms over her chest. She flicked ash from the tip of her cigarette in a way that somehow looked artful. “How’s your first week going?”
“It’s going,” Pete said as he lit a cigarette of his own and shuffled closer. He looked like he was in his early twenties, same as Zack, but where Zack was tall and muscular, Pete was all elbows and knees. He had clear blue eyes and a baby-soft complexion, however, which made Zack stare longer than was necessary.
“A newb, huh?” Zack asked. “Welcome to the glamorous phone sex industry.” He eyed Pete’s skin again and rubbed his own stubbly jaw. Maybe he should start waxing.
“Yeah, I just started Monday. I have to say, I had no idea what to expect, and after three days, I still don’t.”
“You never will,” Alexa said cheerfully. “Every day I walk into the office thinking I’ve heard it all, and every day I’m proven wrong.”
“Tell me about it,” Pete said, his eyes growing wide. He glanced over his shoulder and then leaned toward them. “Just now, I had a client who wanted me to take a phone into—”
“The bathroom,” Zack and Alexa finished simultaneously.
Pete looked startled and embarrassed. “Um, yeah. How’d you know?”
“That’s a pretty common request,” Alexa answered. “I don’t know why, but men love to listen to you pee.”
“Just wait until you get into the really colorful shit,” Zack said, slapping Pete on the back. He clipped a shoulder blade and winced. It was like hitting a shard of glass. “Did you and Colette set your boundaries?”
“Yeah,” Pete said. “It seemed sort of unnecessary. I mean, no one is really going to call in and ask for—”
“Yes, they will,” Alexa and Zack interrupted again.
“Trust us,” Alexa continued. “Those boundaries are there for your mental well-being. They only stop about half the callers, but you’ll be grateful that you don’t have to deal with that half. What did you pick?”
Pete shifted from foot to foot. “Um, incest, rape fantasies, underage, and sadism.”
“Not bad.” Zack cocked his head. “You might want to be more specific about sadism, though. You’d think that would cover a variety of kinks, but if you don’t list something by name, clients will assume it’s on the table. I’d specify knife and blood play to start. We get a lot of requests for those.”
“Since you’re dishing out advice anyway, there is one thing I wanted to ask about. I don’t mean to sound rude, but I was expecting the people who worked here to be . . .” He gestured vaguely.
“Young?” Alexa suggested.
“Hot?” Zack supplied.
“Uh, not exactly. I guess I’m surprised that most of the people here look like I’d see them at the grocery store with their kids. Why is everyone so . . . normal, I guess?”
“You don’t have to be a model to be a PSO. You just have to have the right voice,” Zack answered. “There’s one woman who works here who’s a grandmother, and she’s one of our most popular operators because she sounds like a giggly sorority girl. Though being hot certainly doesn’t hurt.” Zack winked.
Pete blushed and cleared his throat. “Fair enough. Out of curiosity, does anyone service women callers? I’m signed up exclusively for men, and all the people I’ve spoken to only take men as well.”
“Nope,” Zack responded. “The ladies are sadly excluded, and not just by our company either. Most hotlines won’t do women. Every now and then we’ll get a client who wants his wife or girlfriend to listen in, but otherwise this is an old boys’ club.” Zack held up an indignant finger. “As a feminist, I, for one, am outraged.”
Alexa punched him on the arm. “To be fair, women almost never call us, but if they do, it’s company policy to turn them away. It’s an outdated rule that needs to change, in my humble opinion. I know for a fact that a good portion of our colleagues are willing to take female clients, myself included.”
“I’m not, though,” Zack intoned solemnly. “I think women are icky.”
Alexa hit him again, and Zack rubbed his arm. “Jesus, your fists are like tiny rocks.” He turned back to Pete. “Want to know a little trick I learned?”
“Clients are much easier to deal with once you realize they fall into four basic categories: flashers, first-timers, fetishists, and freaks. Flashers only want to stay on the phone for a minute or two—long enough to hear a few dirty lines and put their hands on their dicks—and then they hang up. Learn to identify these, and you can spare yourself from wasting energy on them. They’re not going to pay your bills.
“First-timers are basically like clingy prom dates. They want fantasies and fake intimacy. Mostly, they’re lonely men who want to feel connected to someone, even if it’s just a voice on the other end of the line. Oh, and they never know what the hell they’re doing, so if you let them bumble around for a bit, you can rack up a few extra minutes.”
Zack paused and grinned. Pete had pulled a little notebook and pencil out of his back pocket and was jotting down notes. “Finally, someone appreciates my genius! So, next are the fetishists. These are people who probably watched too much porn in their formative years. Vanilla just doesn’t cut it for them anymore. Fetishists want things like footjobs, pegging, and cuckolding. Most of all, they want it rough. The rougher the better.”
“How are they money-wise?” Pete asked.
“Good. They’re most PSOs’ bread and butter. If they want an involved scenario, you can sometimes keep them on the phone for hours, or so my colleagues tell me. My record is forty-eight minutes with a guy who wanted me to invent a third man and describe him fucking me while he watched. I called him Bob.” Zack crushed his cig out and threw it in a nearby trash can. “Last but certainly not least, you have my personal favorite: the freaks. Now, here’s where the job takes a turn down a dark road. The freaks are the reason we set boundaries. I’m not knocking anyone’s sexual preferences, bear in mind. We all like a pair of handcuffs and some hot wax every now and then. But these guys don’t deal in your everyday, run-of-the-mill fetishes.”
“I’m sorry,” Pete interrupted, “but isn’t the phrase ‘run-of-the-mill fetishes’ sort of an oxymoron?”
“Jesus, you really are new. Give it a week, kid. You’ll learn. As I was saying, the freaks are the ones who want the off-limits stuff. I had a guy the other day who wanted me to pretend to be a young vixen while he fucked me.”
“That doesn’t sound so odd.”
“Vixens aren’t hot women. They’re female foxes.”
“Oh Christ.” Pete looked green.
“Exactly. They’re not all as bad as that, and sometimes if you explain to them that you’re unwilling to play out a certain scenario, they’ll pick something else, but you have to be firm. These guys call thirty PSOs a day in the hopes of finding one who will agree to do the scene with them. Plus, even if you do get them to pick something else, the alternative isn’t always better. I have a regular who likes for me to listen while he has sex with various baked goods.” Zack snorted. “Once, he didn’t wait long enough for this pastry to cool, and when he stuck his dick in—”
“I get the picture,” Pete said. His color had mostly returned, but he still looked skittish.
Zack felt a stab of guilt. “Look, you’re going to get requests for unconventional things. That’s just part of the job. Your clients aren’t trying to upset you, though. Most of them are lonely or horny or experiencing some perfectly human need to talk to another person. In that sense, what we do is kind of noble, right? You get to help people. And hey, if the sex happens to be hot, it’s win-win.”
Alexa smirked. “Look at you, passing on words of wisdom to the probie.” She took one last drag on her cigarette before dropping it to the concrete and grinding it out beneath her heel. “Going soft on me, Hall?”
“Not a chance, Nichols.”
“Well, thanks for the advice.” Pete flicked his cigarette butt into the bushes. “Though I could have lived a long, happy life never knowing any of that.”
“You would have learned eventually. I was just speeding up the process.”
Just then, the door to the building opened, and a familiar blonde head popped out.
“Why am I not surprised?” the woman said as she approached. Despite her youthful good looks, she had the scathing glare of a middle-aged mother, which she turned full force on Zack and Alexa. Her designer clothes and tasteful makeup suggested money and class. “There’s only half an hour left in your shifts, so of course you decided it was time for a break.” Pete tried to edge away, but she snapped her head toward him. “I expect these two to slack off, but you’re new. Shouldn’t you be on your best behavior?”
Pete stammered out an apology and scuttled back into the building, slamming the door behind him.
“Colette!” Zack gushed. “You look particularly stunning this evening. Did you do something new with your hair?”
“Yes, but I doubt you actually noticed the difference. If you’d be so kind as to escort me inside, I need to have a word with you.”
A frisson of anxiety rattled up Zack’s spine. He didn’t think Colette would fire him, but then he’d also thought smartphones were just a fad. He glanced at Alexa, and she gave him an almost imperceptible shrug. Colette was holding the door open for him and tapping her foot. He had no choice but to follow her inside.
When they were back in the office, Zack noticed a bunch of people hanging around the door to one of the back rooms, which almost always meant a photo shoot was going on. Some of the entertainers were cool with letting others observe their technique, and it always drew a crowd. “Is someone having a session this late?”
“We’re just recording some new samples for the website. Our live cams haven’t been getting as many hits this month, so it’s time to spice things up.”
“How’s that going?” Zack asked, partially because he was curious and partially to delay their conversation.
“Fairly well, I suppose. It’s a new venture for us, and I’m willing to give it time. I’ve been in this business long enough to know that you should go where technology leads.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, how long have you been in the biz?”
“Circa the Behind the Green Door era. I’ve seen a lot in my day.”
Zack glanced at Colette surreptitiously. He’d never asked how old she was and likely wouldn’t still be alive if he had. She didn’t look much older than forty but some of the things she said made him think she could be his grandmother
Zack shivered. That was a terrifying concept.
Colette moved to face him. “As it just so happens, the company is precisely what I want to talk to you about. Reconsider my offer.” It wasn’t a question.
Zack shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in working with anything other than the phones. I know the live cam girls make a lot of money, and some of our new films have seemed . . . titillating, but I don’t want my face plastered all over the internet.”
“Why not? You’re not the shy type, and from what you’ve told me, your parents don’t even know how to turn a computer on, let alone use it to watch porn.” Colette looked him up and down, but there was no heat in her gaze. She was merely assessing a potential product. “If I had your body, I’d take my clothes off every chance I got. Plus, you have the whole bad-boy look down pat, and I’ve actually heard women around the office describe your eyes as ‘stormy.’ That is a bad-romance-novel level of hotness.”
“True,” Zack said cheekily, “but I’m still not interested.”
“You’d be a star,” Colette cooed seductively. “If you’d broaden your horizons a bit and market yourself to women, you could double your audience.”
“I’m not exactly into women, though. It’s hard enough for me to fake the phone stuff sometimes, and that’s with other men.”
Colette shrugged. “It was worth a try. The offer’s there if you ever change your mind. Think about how much money you could make.”
“I know, I know”—Zack held up his hands in surrender—“and it’s about time we as a society gave the ladies their due, but I’m not your man.”
“Then you need to step up your game on the phones,” Colette snapped. She’d gone from simpering solicitation to business mode in two seconds flat. “Your average call lasts just ten minutes. That’s half as long as my other employees, including the new kids. Everyone else has at least five regular clients. You’re lucky if you can keep two for a month at a time. I don’t know if you think this job is beneath you or if you’re just not trying hard enough, but with a voice like yours, you should have a steady following by now.”
Zack started to answer, but then he faltered. In truth, he wasn’t serious about this job. He didn’t market himself or have his own website or offer special services like most of his coworkers did. They thought of themselves as independent contractors who were developing a brand. Zack wasn’t anywhere near that level. He’d gone into this hoping to pay his bills for a few months while he looked for a more mainstream career. Fortunately or unfortunately, he’d turned out to have a knack for it that allowed him to coast by with minimal effort.
“I’ll try harder,” he said after a guilty pause. He stared at the ground so he wouldn’t have to see the disappointed look on Colette’s face. “I just need to focus.”
“See that you do,” she said acerbically. “You have a Murmur waiting on your desk. Don’t half ass it just because your shift ends soon. If you have to stay late, do it. We’ll call it even for that unauthorized break you took.”
Zack nodded and made his way back to his cubicle. A single white sheet of computer paper rested between his desk phone and a coffee mug filled with unused pencils.
Most clients were either return callers or people who’d called in on a whim, but a few times a day they got a Murmur: a client who had a scenario in mind but hadn’t requested a particular PSO. Depending on what the client wanted, he’d be given to either whoever was available or whoever was best suited for the job.
Zack rested his elbows on his desk and scanned the Murmur. The client had requested a male, so far so obvious, with a deep voice and a “proclivity”—Zack made a mental note to google that later—for thinking on his feet.
Well, Zack understood why they’d given the Murmur to him. He was far from the best PSO out there, but he did have a reputation for being unflappable. One day Colette had asked him to train some newbies. He was supposed to read through a script with them, but instead he’d let them conference in on one of his calls as a joke.
It wouldn’t have been a big deal, except the client kept changing the scene every few minutes like he couldn’t make up his mind. Zack had jumped from being a student seducing his teacher to an English butler servicing his master in true transatlantic fashion. He’d even adopted a horrible fake accent that everyone agreed was the funniest part. Thankfully, the newbies thought to mute their phones, but the sound of their laughter still aroused suspicion around the office, and soon, everyone knew about it. Colette was furious when she found out, but now most calls that required quick thinking were delegated to him.
Zack scanned the rest of the memo for more information, but it seemed the client hadn’t requested a specific scene. He just wanted someone to “talk dirty” to him.
“What the fuck else is new?” Zack muttered. Obviously this guy wasn’t the most creative. Though he had requested a callback time, which was unusual. Normally, new callers were given to whoever was available immediately, but this guy wanted to hear from someone at 2:40 a.m., sharp.
Zack checked the time and cursed under his breath. He was three minutes late. In any other industry it wouldn’t matter, but in the world of phone sex, time literally translated to money.
Zack snatched up his phone and dialed the number for the call center. From there, the operators would redirect him to the client, which kept the call anonymous on both ends. As the lines clicked over, Zack mentally prepared himself for another bout of unimaginative sex.
On the second ring, a male voice answered. “Hello?”
“Hello,” Zack said, lowering his voice to a smooth rumble. “My name’s Wesley. I’m here to make all your dreams come true.” Zack rolled his eyes at the company tagline, as he always did. He understood the purpose of it, of course. It wasn’t like he could just come out and say, Hi, did someone order some phone sex? but he wished Colette had chosen something less corny.
Zack continued, “What’s your name?”
“John,” the man answered.
Zack almost laughed. Of all the fake names to use with a sex worker—and the names were always fake—John was certainly appropriate.
“Tell me about yourself, Wesley.”
Zack opened his desk drawer and pulled out a memo with his fake information written on it. He pretty much had it memorized, but he liked to have it out for quick reference just in case something tripped him up.
“What would you like to know?” he asked, just to be coy.
“The usual,” John replied. “Where did you grow up? What are your hobbies? What are your deepest, darkest secrets?” John laughed, a low vibration on the other end of the line, and Zack’s skin prickled. It occurred to him that John had a sexy voice: deep and reverberant like the purr of an engine.
Zack switched the receiver to his other ear and leaned forward, getting into character. “I’ve lived in LA my whole life. I love everything about the city: the noise, the people, how alive it feels even in the dead of night. I play guitar in a band in my free time. We book gigs in local dive bars sometimes, but for the most part we play for fun.” Everything he’d said was partially true. Zack did play guitar, and he’d always lived in LA, but he’d never been in a band. He liked this particular persona. It was easy to remember and the perfect mixture of Boy Next Door and Rock Star.
John seemed to like it as well. He made a sound under his breath that was halfway between a moan and a sigh. Zack’s body warmed in response.
“As for my deep, dark secrets,” Zack said, “you’ll have to find those out for yourself.”
“I look forward to it. So, Wesley, do you have a last name?”
Zack froze. Shit. No one had ever asked him that before. He quickly racked his brain, and a moment later a bit of a poem he’d read during his one year of college popped into his head.
“Darkling,” he answered. “My name is Wesley Darkling.”
John moaned again, and the hair on the nape of Zack’s neck stood up. Fuck, why was that so hot? Maybe this was going to be interesting after all.
“Wesley Darkling,” John repeated, like he was tasting it. “That’s quite a name. It goes perfectly with that sexy voice of yours.”
Zack licked his lips. Why did he feel like he was the one being seduced?
“Thanks,” he said for lack of anything better. He made a note of his new fake last name on his memo before continuing, “Allow me to return the compliment. With a voice like yours, you could put me out of a job.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” The line crackled with rustling fabric. A pillow being fluffed? Zack pictured John reclining on top of a large, luxurious bed. “Let’s get to the point, shall we? I want you to talk to me, Wesley. Tell me what you like for men to do to you, or what you like to do to yourself.”
Zack smirked. He only ever got such benign requests from first-timers. John seemed a lot less intimidating now that he’d shown his hand.
“I like to take my time,” he drawled, falling easily into his usual routine. He’d perfected the art of talking slowly enough to drag out the call but not so slowly that the client caught on. “And I like to be very thorough. I always start with kissing, and sometimes I’ll spend hours on just that. I’ve heard it said that you can tell everything you need to know about a man from his car and how he treats waiters, but there’s a much better way.”
“Oh?” John asked. “What’s that?”
“Betty Everett had it right: everything you need to know is in his kiss. Does he start out with slow, light kisses or shove his tongue down your throat? Is he desperate and messy, or do you have to coax him into it? Does he like to be in control, or would he rather someone pushed him up against the nearest flat surface and took what they wanted?” Zack paused for effect and all but breathed, “I bet you like to be pinned down and kissed until you can’t think straight.”
There was a beat of absolute silence. Then John made a sweet, languid sound like honey dripping from his lips. This time, Zack didn’t even try to suppress the arousal that pulsed through him. He could listen to John moan like that for hours.
“Fuck, that’s perfect,” John said. He seemed a little unsteady, and his breathing had quickened. “Keep talking. Tell me what you’d do next.”
Zack heard a pop followed by a squirt. If he were to hazard a guess, he’d say John had just opened a bottle of lube. Or he was shampooing his hair, but that seemed less likely. Zack knew what was coming next from experience, but that didn’t lessen the anticipation. An image of a generic attractive man jerking off floated through his mind. He held his breath and listened. A moment later, he heard the unmistakable sound of a slick fist moving rhythmically. Even if he weren’t a PSO, he’d recognize that from his teenage years alone, and it had no business being as hot as it was.
“I’d kiss you until you were weak and pliant against me,” Zack continued. “I’d start out slow and then deepen the kiss until the taste of me filled your mouth. I wouldn’t stop until you were a quivering mess, begging me to touch you. I’d start to remove your clothes. What are you wearing?” Zack knew it was a cliché, but he had to ask so he didn’t describe the wrong thing and ruin the fantasy.
“Button-down shirt and jeans.” It sounded like John was answering through gritted teeth.
“I’d work on your shirt first,” Zack said, keeping his voice low and velvety. “I’d pop the buttons open one by one and stop to touch every inch of skin as it was revealed. Once I’d undone enough of them, I’d play with your nipples.”
John blurted out, “Calluses.”
Zack hesitated. “What?”
“You said you play guitar,” John murmured. “You must have calluses on your fingers from the strings. I bet they feel amazing.”
Zack blinked. He’d never thought about it like that, but John was right. Zack did have calluses from pressing on the fretboard. He’d have to keep that in mind the next time he masturbated.
“Is that what you want me to do to you, John?” Zack moaned. “Wrap my hand around you and stroke you with my rough skin? Most of my calluses are on my fingertips. What if I dragged them up your length? It would be just a little too much, almost too intense, but you would love it, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, please, so good,” John whimpered.
Zack’s jeans were suddenly much too tight. With supreme effort, he forced himself not to squirm. Perhaps John wasn’t a first-timer after all.
“John, you’re so hot.” For once, he meant it. “You love it when it’s rough, don’t you? I bet you love to push your boundaries when you touch yourself: too fast, too hard, squeeze just a bit too much until you’re right on the edge between pleasure and pain.”
“Yes—God yes,” John stammered. “Do you?”
Zack grunted in affirmation. “Sometimes I don’t use enough lube on purpose so I can get that extra friction, and fuck, it almost hurts, but I come so hard every time.”
John made a helpless noise, and Zack’s cock throbbed in response.
Before he could say anything more, John breathed, “Jesus, I love your voice. It’s like it’s touching me, resonating against my skin. Please don’t stop. I’m close. I want to come to the sound of your voice. I want to burn it into my memory so I can still hear it for days after.”
“Oh shit, yes,” Zack blurted out before he could stop himself. “I want that too.” Desire, sharp and raw, flooded into him unchecked.
John seemed like he was about to fall apart. “Keep talking, Wesley. I’m so close.”
Zack couldn’t hold back anymore. He let himself get immersed in the fantasy. “Jesus, John, I’m so hard right now. I want to hear you come. I need to hear you come undone. I’m going to think about you when I’m lying in bed tonight. I’m going to remember all the little, needy noises you make, and I’m going to fuck my own fist until I come so hard I can’t move.” It wasn’t the first time Zack had said something like this to a client, but it was definitely the first time he’d meant it. “Christ, John, come for me, please.”
A second later, John made a ragged noise, like pleasure was being torn from his lips. Need spiked into Zack so intensely he had to bite his lip to distract himself. The knowledge that John was orgasming right now was almost unbearably hot. After a few seconds, the line filled with John’s labored breathing.
Zack fell silent. He was turned on to the point of discomfort, and despite John’s heavy breathing, he was pretty sure there was no oxygen left on Earth. He didn’t usually get hard on the job, let alone straining-in-his-jeans hard. The temptation to palm himself through the denim was almost too much. No matter how badly he wanted relief, however, he had a job to finish.
John’s breathing had quieted, which meant Zack needed to speak before things got awkward. He cast about for something appropriate to say. All his usual contrived good-byes seemed cheap, considering how genuine their session had been. But what else could he say? Thank you? Please call back soon? Was it good for you too?
He’d just settled on a simple compliment—Hey, man, that was fun. Let’s do it again sometime—when he heard a distinct click, followed by dead air.
It took Zack’s arousal-laden brain a moment to process what that meant.
John had hung up. Without saying good-bye.
Zack pulled the receiver away from his ear and looked blankly at it, as if expecting it to explain itself. After a solid thirty seconds, he placed it back in its cradle.
He stared at it for a moment longer before shifting his gaze to his clock.
He and John had been on the phone for eighteen minutes.
Three days passed, and John didn’t call back. After a week, Zack stopped snatching up his phone every time it rang.
It was foolish of him to get his hopes up. He knew better than that. He couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment, though. John had seemed different from the others, at least at first. Zack’s frustration was compounded by the fact that he hadn’t had a single promising client that week. Nothing but mouth-breathers, prank callers, and men who were clearly trying to get off before their wives came home.
Zack was halfway through his shift on the eighth John-free day when he started to worry he was going to fall asleep at his desk. He’d just gotten off the phone with a man who’d barely managed to get through introductions before coming in his pants, and Zack was feeling especially bitter. He checked the queue to see if there were any random callers who hadn’t yet been assigned to an operator. It was empty for what felt like the first time in days. He breathed a long sigh of relief.
His thoughts drifted to John for what must have been the hundredth time. Dealing with his usual clients after his call with John was like chasing Dom Pérignon with stale beer. Part of him knew they weren’t any worse than usual, but that part was getting harder and harder to listen to. Zack sighed and rested his face in his hands and muttered, “I’m an idiot.”
“I agree, but why?” a voice asked.
Zack whipped around so fast his neck cracked. Alexa was standing by his desk.
“No reason,” he bleated. “I’m just thinking out loud. It’s been a rough week.”
“I noticed,” Alexa said. “Or rather, Colette noticed. She told me earlier you had a decent call last week, but now you can’t keep them on the line to pay your rent. Literally.” Alexa took a seat on the edge of his desk.
Zack scowled. “I love it when Colette takes it upon herself to inform everyone of my progress.”
Alexa fiddled with a cigarette tucked behind her ear. “I’m pretty sure she only told me. Maybe she thinks I can motivate you.” She was wearing a blue hoodie and a bright-pink tutu. She’d swept her hair up into a cute topknot. Zack thought she looked like cotton candy in human form.
“I don’t need motivation. I’m just having an off week.”
Alexa gave him an appraising look. “You say that, and yet at the beginning of the week you showed up early for work. You’ve never done that before. Plus, every time your phone rang, you got this goofy, hopeful look on your face.”
She shrugged. “I dunno, I thought maybe you were waiting for that client to call back.”
“Absolutely not,” Zack said in a flat tone. “Stop analyzing me. It’s annoying.”
“Right, and that wasn’t defensive at all.”
Zack pretended not to notice the knowing look she gave him. He absorbed himself in the task of viciously stabbing an eraser on his desk with a bent paper clip.
“All right,” Alexa said after a moment. “I was hoping you were ready to dish, but I can wait.” She rose to her feet and slid her hands into her pockets. “Let me know if you want to grab a drink later. You seem like you could use it.”
Jack felt a twinge of remorse and forced himself to smile. “Okay, I will. Now get back to work, you slacker.”
Alexa sauntered off in the direction of her desk, and Zack scrubbed a hand over his eyes. He needed to make some less perceptive friends. Or put up a curtain to block Alexa’s view of his cubicle.
Over the course of the next hour, Zack took one more client, who did absolutely nothing to improve Zack’s mood. He sounded like air being let out of a balloon and insisted on calling him “Daddy’s Little Slut.” Zack decided that was the Very Last Straw Ever and asked to go home early. Colette mercifully agreed.
The trip from Murmur Inc. in Pasadena to his apartment in Koreatown was one Zack could make in his sleep, he’d done it so many times. He hopped on the Gold Line from Del Mar to Union Station, changed over to the Purple, and then took that all the way to the Wilshire/Vermont stop. From there, he walked the last twenty minutes to his building on Eighth Street.
It was a hot day, but there was a decent breeze that carried the scent of spices from the many restaurants dotting the streets. It smelled like curry and too many bodies twenty-four hours a day. In the winter, cinnamon and an odd aroma like rusted metal made every breath burn his nostrils. Zack couldn’t say why, but he loved it. There was something so alive about it. Even if he didn’t set foot there for twenty years, he would know the area the second he smelled it, like a sensory fingerprint on his brain.
As Zack ambled home, he passed gas stations with boarded-up windows, bail bond agencies, and one-room churches. Everything was small and stained with age, unlike the touristy parts of the city. Most of the buildings were a dirty tan, with iron bars covering the windows. The biggest exception was Eddy’s Market, a combination produce stand and convenience store. Its cheerful green awning was the only dot of color on the whole block. Zack bought most of his groceries there when he actually bothered to cook.
After passing Eddy’s, it was just another two blocks to his place. When Zack spotted his building, a sense of ease settled over him. Most people would call him crazy for being comforted by the sight of it. The building was squat and boxy, with small windows like sad eyes in a sagging face. The open breezeways between the units meant bugs were plentiful and ubiquitous, attracted by the easy shelter. Zack lived on the first floor, which was perfect for moving furniture but also for getting robbed. He’d had to replace his television twice in the past year, and his Xbox was living with his friend Lee until he moved to a nicer neighborhood. If that ever actually happened.
But Zack was strangely attached to the place. Rent was the first bill he’d paid with his own money when he left for college. Even after he’d dropped out, he’d continued to live there.
Zack trudged up to the black gate surrounding the building. He waved to a middle-aged Dominican woman who was hanging laundry out of a second-story window. “Hey, Mrs. Alvarez!”
The woman finished clipping a blouse to the line that stretched between the buildings and waved back. “Hey, Zack! Ziggy and Marilyn are waiting for you.”
Zack slipped through the gate and hurried along a thin walkway. It snaked from one apartment to the next before widening into a dilapidated parking lot in the back. Weeds crept up through huge cracks in the pavement and clung to the chain-link fence surrounding it. It looked like a scene out of a postapocalyptic film: the plants had begun to reclaim the earth.
A man with skin so dark it matched the oil smudges on his white shirt was squatting next to a patch of dirt. He was tending to a few fruitless tomato plants with a spade. They fit the definition of a vegetable garden in only the loosest sense, but they were clearly well cared for.
“Hey, Mr. Alvarez,” Zack greeted him as he approached. “How was your day?”
“Not bad, son,” the man replied. He pushed himself into a standing position with a weary groan. “Your boy here missed you.”
As he spoke, a streak of white flashed past him and appeared at Zack’s feet.
“Whoa, there, Ziggy.” Zack laughed as the white shepherd jumped on him. His paws easily reached Zack’s narrow hips. Zack petted as much snowy fur as he could reach and scratched behind his ears. Ziggy’s whole body reverberated with the force of his wagging tail. “Easy there, boy. I was only at work, same as always. It’s like you think you’re never going to see me again every time I leave.”
“A stray like him must think that’s a possibility,” Mr. Alvarez said, watching Zack with keen black eyes.
Zack nodded. “Yeah, but he and I are in it for the long haul. Aren’t we, boy?”
Ziggy barked. Zack kissed his head, making obnoxious smooching noises until Mr. Alvarez snorted.
“I got good news for you, son.”
“Is it about the thermostat?”
Mr. Alvarez nodded. “It’s stuck, just like I thought. Easy fix, and then Marilyn won’t overheat anymore.”
“All right!” He pumped a fist in the air. “You are a genius, Mr. Alvarez! I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You’d let that beautiful machine over there rot, is what you’d do.” Mr. Alvarez gestured at a large, sheet-covered lump in the corner of the lot. The bulk of it was obscured by moldy boxes and heaps of scrap metal.
“I don’t deserve her,” he agreed, moving toward the sheet and lifting it just enough to expose a flash of cherry-red paint. “Marilyn’s far too good for me. She should find herself a new, richer boyfriend. One who can afford to feed her all the premium gas and oil she wants.”
Mr. Alvarez rolled his eyes. “I’m sure she’d settle for being taken out on the town every now and then.”
Zack dropped the sheet and shrugged. “I would, but I’m too afraid to even take her off blocks. If we didn’t have all this junk piled up back here, she’d have been stripped down to the frame by now. It’s better to keep her looking like she’s already been scrapped.”
“I know, but cars are meant to be driven, not to sit in backyards or on showroom floors. Besides, eventually the other neighbors are going to want to put something useful back here. Like a kiddie pool or a barbecue pit.”
“After the week I had, I vote for a noose.”
Mr. Alvarez pulled a rag out of the pocket of his overalls. His fingers shook so badly he almost dropped it. Zack tried not to stare, but Mr. Alvarez spotted him.
He gave Zack a thin smile. “No need to look so concerned. The sclerosis hasn’t gotten the best of me yet.”
Zack hesitated and then asked, “How are you feeling?”
He shrugged. “About as well as someone in my condition can expect.”
Zack winced and looked at his feet. “I thought you were still in remission, though?”
“I am, but who knows how long that’ll last. Days? Years? For all I’m paying those doctors, they don’t really tell me anything.”
Zack nudged a pebble with the toe of his shoe. “I’m sorry.”
To Zack’s surprise, Mr. Alvarez chuckled. “Don’t act so glum. Happens to us all eventually. At least you gave me a fine last project to work on before the wife makes me take up bird watching or something.” He made a sour face and then began walking toward their building. “I swear, the day they forced me to retire, it’s like she got it in her head that a breeze could put me in the ground. I thought retiring was supposed to be about having time for fun again.”
Zack whistled for Ziggy, then jogged after Mr. Alvarez. “I don’t think you’re giving Mrs. Alvarez enough credit. I started talking to her about craft beer the other day. Next thing I knew, she was googling home brewing.”
“Atta boy.” Mr. Alvarez clapped him on the back. “Have I mentioned lately that you’re like the son I never had?”
They walked together until they reached the staircase leading to the second floor. Zack pretended to fiddle with his keys until Mr. Alvarez made it up the first flight. When he was no longer visible, Zack approached apartment 112C and slid his key into the lock. Opening the door required a combination of pulling the handle and jamming his foot against the bottom of the frame. He’d done it so many times, it was second nature. He shoved the door open a second later, ignoring the worrisome cracking sound it made. Ziggy bounded past him into the apartment. Before Zack had even closed the door behind them, Ziggy had curled up in Zack’s spot on the gray, squishy couch by the far wall.
“Welcome home, boy,” Zack said, tossing his keys onto a small table that was overflowing with junk. He swore he was going to clear it off one of these days, but he never did. He had no real reason to. He seldom entertained, and he ate his meals sitting on the couch. What little furniture he did have only kept him from throwing his possessions directly onto the ground. Because that, he’d decided, was too classless even for him.
Zack pulled his shoes off and left them by the door. The carpet was a dingy taupe color that seemed to cultivate dirt by sheer force of will. He flipped on a light switch, and the ceiling fan hummed with life. The single bulb in its glass globe cast waxen light on the room. He yanked his jacket off next and nearly knocked a framed print of Dali’s The Hallucinogenic Toreador off the wall. A few other posters dotted the room—one for Call of Duty, another for Lord of the Rings, and one for Fight Club that Zack felt completed his “single guy living alone” starter kit.
The framed art had been a gift from his older sister. She’d called it an attempt to “class up the joint.” The idea still made Zack laugh years later.
“You,” he pointed at his dog, “are the only good thing about this place.”
Ziggy cocked his head to the side and let his long, pink tongue loll out of his mouth.
“Exactly.” He made his way over to the kitchen. A four-burner stove, a toaster, a coffeepot, and an olive-green refrigerator from the sixties were all that filled the cramped space. Yellowed wallpaper printed with what might have been roses covered the walls. Zack checked Ziggy’s food and water bowls and then turned to the fridge. It was making a disconcerting whining noise, and when Zack pulled it open, he was hit by a blast of icy air.
“Shit,” he muttered. He reached for a knob at the bottom and twisted it a fraction of a degree to the left. Any more, and when he opened it the next morning, he’d discover a magical portal to the Sahara Desert. Zack pulled a half-frozen beer from the top shelf. He twisted off the cap and tossed it in a nearby trash can before heading back into the living room.
Ziggy moved dutifully over as soon as Zack made it clear he was going to sit whether the dog was there or not. Ziggy pressed his cold nose into Zack’s armpit.
“Weirdo,” Zack said, ruffling the dog’s long fur. He set his beer down on the coffee table and picked up the remote. He pressed the power button and watched the TV flicker to life. It was a square, ancient-looking thing reminiscent of an age before widescreens and HD. After the loss of his first few TVs, he’d stopped shelling out for the good stuff. He reached for his beer, took a sip, and began flipping through channels.
“Ah, the joys of a decent cable package,” he said.
Ziggy nudged him and made a whining noise.
“I know, I know,” Zack cooed. “You think I let the hot cable guy talk me into upgrading, but this is the only nice thing we own. A man needs his entertainment after a long day of listening to strange men masturbate.”
Ziggy gave him a look that Zack swore was affronted.
“You want me to spend all our money on chew toys, don’t you?”
“I knew it.”
Zack’s phone vibrated in his pocket. He set his beer down again and dug the phone out of his jeans. The caller ID read Mom.
Zack answered, “Hey, good timing. I just got home.”
“Hi, Zack, it’s Mom.”
“I know, Mom. Remember caller ID? We talked about caller ID.”
“Yes, I remember. Listen, sweetie, are you coming to dinner this Sunday?”
Zack rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’ll be there, just like I said I would be. I’d tell you if my plans had changed.”
“Well, forgive me for liking to know ahead of time how many mouths I’m going to have to feed.”
Zack could perfectly picture his mother. She always called people from an old-fashioned, wall-mounted phone in her kitchen. Her hair—the same dark shade as Zack’s—would be tied back with a red bandana. She’d have a white apron thrown over her clothes and a hand perched on her hip. Maybe even a smudge of flour on her swarthy, freckled cheek. He’d seen her adopt that pose thousands of times throughout his childhood and well into his adult life. It was her well-meant-scolding pose.
“All right, Mom, I promise I’ll be there. What are we having?”
“But Mom,” Zack sputtered, “that’s too risky! We only have spaghetti every other time we get together!”
Mom laughed. “I know, I know. Your father keeps buying meatballs by the dozen. What am I supposed to do?”
“Stop taking him to IKEA for starters. Isn’t it against our heritage to buy meatballs from anywhere but Italy?”
There was a pause, and Zack got the sense that his mother had shrugged. “He likes them. I like them. Everybody likes them. Besides, it’s my heritage. Your father just married into it. The sauce is Nana Gemma’s recipe, and that’s good enough for me.”
“Yeah, I guess. I’ll see you Sunday, then. Seven?”
“Sharp. Love you.”
“Love you too.” Zack hung up and returned the phone to his pocket.
Not even two minutes later, it buzzed again. Slightly bewildered, Zack pulled it out. This time, the caller ID read “Not Mom.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Zack muttered, sliding the lock screen to answer. “Hey, Dad. I just got off the phone with Mom.”
“Hey, Zack, it’s Dad.”
Zack facepalmed. “I’m well aware of that. What can I do for you?”
“I’m just calling to give you a heads-up about this Sunday.”
“Yeah, Mom already told me she expects me to be there.”
“She doesn’t just expect it, Zack. She’s counting on it.”
“Oh no,” Zack wheezed as frosty realization engulfed him. “What has Mom got planned this time? Is it a surprise party?”
“Your birthday isn’t until January.”
“Exactly! I’d never see it coming!”
Zack heard a long-suffering sigh on the other end of the line.
“Well, what is it, then? Is she marrying me off into some rich European family in exchange for land and my weight in gold?”
“If she were, I wouldn’t be warning you. I’d be signing the paperwork and packing up your room.”
“You know you don’t have to keep it how it was. I’m not coming back.”
“Try telling your mother that. She still thinks you’re going to go back to school.”
Zack made a rude noise.
“Anyway, your mother thinks you need more direction in your life. And she intends to tell you that. Your sister is going to be there as well.”
Zack nearly choked on his beer. “She made Bianca fly in? What is this, an intervention?”
“Bianca was going to be in town anyway, but I think Mom plans to capitalize on the situation. I just wanted to warn you so you’d have a chance to prepare yourself. Mom means well, and I don’t want you flying off the handle like you usually do when people start telling you things you don’t want to hear.”
Zack chose to ignore that and asked, “Is anyone else going to be there?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Wonderful. An audience. My own family has plans to ambush me, and I’m supposed to just sit there and take it.”
“No one is going to ambush you. Well, Mom is, but if you know what’s good for you, you’ll grin and bear it. It’s about time you learned to face things like an adult.”
“How is being fake the same thing as being an adult?”
“Maybe you’ll understand one day when you finally grow up.”
Zack flirted with the idea of hanging up on him. Instead, he reined in his temper and responded in a shadow of a civil tone. “You think the answer to everything is to nod and smile like nothing’s wrong.”
“Well, it’s a sight more helpful than getting defensive. I thought I taught you better manners than that. You haven’t even thanked me for calling to warn you. Besides, there’s nothing to be done about it, so you might as well accept it. I’ll see you Sunday. And make sure you wear something nice. Not those black rags you usually have on. Your sister hasn’t seen you in months.”
“Thanks for the call, Dad,” Zack gushed with fake enthusiasm. “See you Sunday!” He stabbed the End Call button and then pulled Ziggy into his lap. He scratched him vigorously behind the ears until his frustration had ebbed and his dog was a happy puddle.
Zack sighed and let his head fall back onto the couch. “I know young men are supposed to have issues with their fathers, but this is getting ridiculous.”
Zack watched a few hours of mindless TV, wolfed down some leftovers, and took Ziggy out before heading to bed. His room was as Spartan as the rest of the apartment: his nightstand and small dresser didn’t match, and his bed—it was a queen, at least—didn’t have a headboard. He had sprung for some nice sheets, though. They were a silky red color that injected a bit of life into the beige walls and faded carpet. Zack kept framed pictures of his loved ones on every available surface. His sister and her long-term boyfriend beamed at him from the top of his battered dresser. Mom and Dad smiled from the windowsill.
“So looking forward to seeing you, sis,” Zack said to the photo, his tone laden with sarcasm. “Or at least I would be if our parents would give me the chance.”
His laptop was lying on top of his duvet like always, but he moved it to the nightstand without turning it on. He wasn’t in the mood for the internet right now.
Zack changed into a pair of cotton pajama bottoms and then climbed into bed, patting the blankets until Ziggy jumped up after him. He plugged in his phone, clicked out the overhead light, and settled on his back. Tomorrow was Friday, but that meant a late night for a PSO. Weekends were their busiest time. Everyone was looking for something (or someone) to do. Maybe he’d get an interesting new client or a strange request he could gossip about with Alexa.
He knew who he was really hoping to get a call from, however. His thoughts drifted to John for the umpteenth time.
“Why can’t I stop thinking about him?” he asked his darkened room.
Ziggy whined but otherwise failed to offer any enlightenment. Zack rolled onto his side and forced himself to think about nothing until he fell into a fitful sleep.
He woke up early the next day, much earlier than was necessary considering his shift started at noon. He felt no more refreshed than he had the night before. He took his time making a pot of strong coffee and a couple of eggs. He didn’t usually cook, more out of laziness than a lack of skill, but he wanted to keep himself busy so he wouldn’t think about how badly he didn’t want to go to work. If he thought about it, he’d call out, and Colette would have kittens.
When he was finished with breakfast, he washed his plate and set it on a dish towel to dry. Then he brushed his hair and teeth, rinsed his mouth with mouthwash, and even flossed. When he’d exhausted every possible time-wasting avenue at his disposal, he finally gave in and got dressed for work. He threw on his usual attire of jeans and a black T-shirt before slipping his wallet, phone, and keys into his back pocket and heading for the door.
Zack let Ziggy into the backyard like he did every day. It was one of the things that made his apartment complex so convenient, even if it was a dump. He didn’t have to worry about Ziggy being cooped up inside all day, and his neighbors let the dog romp undisturbed through the overgrown grass. Zack checked the water dish he kept under the awning, then strolled off in the direction of the bus stop, pausing only to wave at Mrs. Alvarez as she painstakingly dragged in the laundry she’d hung out the day before.
His trip to work was uneventful, but the moment he walked into the office, he was accosted by Alexa.
“Wow, I feel special,” Zack joked. “You almost never greet me at the door.”
“I’ve been waiting for you,” Alexa said. Her brown eyes flashed with mischief. “I just had the funniest request. I wanted to tell you about it before you have to call your client.”
“Tell me everything,” Zack responded with glee, but then the rest of what Alexa had said caught up with him. “Wait, what client?”
“I took a call a few minutes ago that was meant for you, or rather ‘Wesley.’ I left a Murmur on your desk with the details. I offered to transfer him to someone who was free, but he insisted on talking to you.”
Zack’s heart didn’t skip so much as play hopscotch on his rib cage.
“Oh?” he asked, feigning nonchalance. “Was it one of my regulars?”
“Not as far as I know. I didn’t recognize his name. It was super generic.”
“A generic name?” Zack kept his tone conversational. “Like Chris or Mike or . . . John?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
Zack forced his face to stay blank even as his stomach dropped out through his feet. “You don’t happen to remember his exact name, do you?”
Alexa tapped her chin with a neon-green fingernail. “Can’t say I do. Why? Are you expecting someone?”
“No, no,” Zack said too quickly, “I was just wondering. I mean, there was this one client I hoped would call back, but it’s probably not him.”
Alexa looked at him askance. “You all right there, Sparky?”
“Yeah,” Zack replied. “I’m just a little hungover.”
Alexa let his flimsy excuse slide. “Well, you look pale and, honestly, a bit deranged. You should sit down. I’ll tell you about my client later.”
“Right,” Zack said, forcing a smile. “Catch you in a bit.”
He walked stiffly toward his desk, berating himself. He wasn’t the world’s greatest liar, but he wasn’t usually that bad. There was no reason for him to freak out. John was one of the most common names out there. Generic, as Alexa had put it. Besides, if a client intended to call back, they typically did so right away. The chances of converting a new client into a regular after a whole week had passed were supermodel slim.
No matter how many times Zack repeated this, his nerves still felt like they were skittering across ice. The second he reached his desk, he snatched up the Murmur Alexa had left. Shit. It just had a connection number and a callback time. No help at all.
He fired up his computer and jiggled his leg as he waited for the processor to boot. The welcome screen loaded with agonizing slowness, followed by his desktop. He clicked on the program they used to log calls, all but crawling out of his skin with impatience.
Once it loaded, he clocked in and signaled to the program that he wanted to make a call. When it had connected to his phone line and marked him as Busy, he finally picked up the phone.
He held the receiver to his ear, listening to the mindless buzz of the dial tone. He punched in the connection number Alexa had left and forced himself to breathe evenly. The call picked up and switched him over to the correct line. Then the phone rang once, twice, three times.
On the fourth ring, Zack heard a click and a muffled greeting. Too muffled for him to recognize the voice.
He floundered for a second before pulling himself together enough to rasp, “Hello. My name’s Wesley. I’m here to make all your dreams come true.”
He winced. He sounded awful. As he waited for a response, he was nearly deafened by the sound of his own pulse throbbing in his ears.
Then a smooth, rumbling voice said, “Hello, Darkling.”